De-centring and re-centring urban studies?
Ananya Roy (2009: 820) notes succinctly that
[tjhe concern is the limited sites at which theoretical production is currently theorized and with the failure of imagination and epistemology that is thus engendered. It is time to blast open theoretical geographies, to produce a new set of concepts, in the crucible of a new repertoire of cities.
Here the emergence of East and South-East Asian cities has created a niche in the global urban studies, bringing scholarly attention to this part of Asia. The rise of East and South-East Asian cities as a reference point for urban development in other cities of the Global South has resulted in an increasing volume of studies on these cities in recent years (for example, Doucette and Park, 2019; Park et al., 2021).The contribution of studies on Chinese urbanism has been enormous in particular, not only in terms of the scholarly opportunities that were created as China began to tread the path of economic reform and rise to become one of the biggest economies in the world but also in terms of the expanding higher education market. Indeed, as Wu (2015) has noted, “Chinese cities provide a chance to expand the geography of theories”.
Re-centring urban studies by focusing on cities outside the North Atlantic is a challenging endeavour in itself. One particular problem perhaps is the hesitation amongst funders and publishers to be open to proposals that nominate a non-Western single site (e.g.,a city or a country) from which theorising can occur. Journal editors may also favour a special issue that includes multi-site comparison instead of a collection on a single site. The experience ofjesook Song and Laam Hae, who have recently edited an insightful volume titled On the Margins of Urban South Korea: Core Location as Method and Praxis, is quite telling. In their afterword, itself a rare contribution that provides a detailed genealogy of the evolution of their thoughts from their seeding to fruition, they spell out how their previous efforts to pursue a special issue, which was to treat ‘urban South Korea’ as a single case, were to no avail, an experience that replicates my own from some years ago. One of the reasons journal editors rejected their special issue proposal seems to be that “research on a particular country (i.e., South Korea) was incapable of engaging in transnational analysis” (Song and Hae, 2019:189).They found it challenging to ascertain that there is “the significance of knowledge grounded in a particular location, especially one in the non-West, because of its supposed limitations in appealing to conception of universality and certain understandings of transnationality” (ibid.). It is interesting to note how this hurdle is less of the case with China studies, as can be illustrated by a number of journal special issues that have focused on China (for example, He et al., 2017; Logan, 2018;Wu and Zhang, 2020), the reasons of which may include the surge of interests in China studies as China has risen to become a powerful economy and how much the academic world, including the publishing industry, has worked hard to capture its market and readership.
Even if it is possible to use a single site from which theorising can occur, there is a risk of giving prominence to a small number of prime cities that already enjoy political, economic and cultural privilege in their host countries. In this way, some places are over-represented as sources of inspiration. For instance, a select number of prime cities situated in India (noteworthy are Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai), in Africa (notably Johannesburg, Cape Town and, to a lesser extent, Lagos) and in mainland China (so-called first-tier cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou) have risen to become key sites of academic enquiries. The rise of these economies has also helped elevate the positions of these cities, as academic markets expand rapidly in line with their trade volumes in the world economy.The same can be said for South Korea: there is a predominant focus on its capital, Seoul. The focus on a select number of prime cities means that our understandings of urban processes in their countries are largely skewed towards the few cities that frequently feature in research outputs and public debates. In other words, our discussions on urbanism in the Global South and East are largely based on the optics of major prime cities of the region, and this is indeed a mirror image of the global urban studies that have been largely based on a select number of global cities.1
Another inevitable shortcoming of such preponderance of studies on prime cities is that smaller and more regional cities are largely hidden from scrutiny, thus remaining in the epistemological blind spot despite calls for more inclusion of cities dropped ‘off the map’ (Robinson, 2002). Some of the megacities may also remain in the blind spot despite their sizeable population and economic influence in their national territories due to their loose global connections and therefore remaining as ‘black hole’ cities (Short, 2004). Cities in the blind spot may also result from inadequate research infrastructure and the institutional constraints they face, preventing lone researchers from entering the under-studied sites, and anyone who has succeeded is not able to form a critical mass of scholars that would make the sites more visible in the academic world. Whatever the reasons are, places in the blind spot remain under-researched, which in turn further contributes to their drop from the global epistemological map of what constitutes studies of global urbanism.
There are, of course, benefits of studying such prime cities in a rapidly urbanising world. For one thing, it provides a window of learning opportunity, as the urbanism rooted in such cities may generate a further impetus of changes in the rest of the country, acting as a reference that gets emulated by those whose development lags behind. For instance, the vertical accumulation in South Korea that saw the domination of high-rise condominiums2 stemmed from Seoul’s urban development experiences (Shin, 2011, 2021; Park and Jang, 2019; Sonn and Shin, 2020). China’s globalising cities in the eastern provinces, such as Shanghai, Nanjing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, got ‘rich’ first in the midst of China’s economic reform from the 1990s, thus acting as a source of aspiration for other inland cities to learn from (for example, Chen and Zhou, 2009; O’Donnell et al., 2017). Such understandings promise the unveiling of the nature of Korean or Chinese developmental urbanism as ideology (Shin and Zhao, 2018; Park and Jang, 2019; Shin 2019), which affects cross-regional (and, more recently transnational) mobility of corresponding urban policies and urbanism (McFarlane, 2011). However, the shortfall is the absence of studies on interstitial spaces and smaller/regional cities; this limitation prevents us from adequately capturing the urban experiences of the majority populations in host countries. To this extent, studies on the Global South/East urbanism may retain a mirror image of the hegemonic global urbanism that has heavily relied upon global cities at the apex of urban hierarchies that are prone to repeating the epistemological chauvinism that Vainer (2014: 53) warned against.3